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Traveling overseas? Hand over your devices or face $5,000 fine

Anyone who has ever traveled abroad understands that each country is at least a little different. Everything from the culture and way of life to architecture and sights to see vary, and the chance to experience it all is really why we hop on a plane or boat and take the trip in the first place.

Yet as the world continues to get even smaller, more and more there are similarities between many of the places we would like to go and home. Technology, laws and the overall experience — while different — can feel a bit familiar at times, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But every now and then a foreign country has a law that seems a bit off, and now New Zealand has enacted one that has us scratching our heads. It’s called the Customs and Excise Act 2018, and it could cost you if you visit the country.

It took effect on Oct. 1

The law was actually announced on September 14, but took a couple of weeks to actually go into effect. That may not have been nearly enough time to get people to understand the “why” behind it, especially the idea of being fined up to $5,000 for not being willing to comply.

Now, that’s $5,000 in New Zealand money, which equates to about $3,300 in the United States. That’s still a good amount of dough, and for what, exactly?

Essentially, the change in the law covers how Customs can carry out “digital strip-searches,” which before involved them being allowed to demand to see travelers’ electronic devices.

Now, along with getting a look at them, Customs agents are allowed to ask people to provide a password, pin-code or fingerprint — whatever it takes to unlock the device — if officials deem there to be a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. Seems like an invasion of privacy, right?

Fun Fact: The United States is New Zealand’s third-largest international tourism market, with Americans staying an average of seven days in the country.

On a website explaining the new law, it was written that, “Customs must now satisfy specific legal thresholds before they can search the digital content of an electronic device when processing passengers or crew, or inspecting baggage, mail, and cargo.”

It is also noted that the change now clarifies when someone is obligated to answer questions, which is not always. As the government sees it, this clarifies some rules and provides a balance between a traveler’s right to privacy and what the government should do in the name of security.

But how far is too far?

Not surprisingly, the Council for Civil Liberties believes the new law represents quite the invasion of privacy. They argue needing only “reasonable suspicion” to conduct an advanced search leaves plenty of wiggle room, with no substantial way for a traveler to challenge the demand.

Besides, are officials even likely to find anything of consequence on someone’s phone or tablet? They say their search will not involve anything that could be on the cloud, instead limiting it to whatever is physically on the device.

So, if a criminal really wanted to sneak something in, all they would need to do is leave it on the cloud only to download it after leaving the airport.

Will this come to the United States?

Jonathan Weiss | Deramstime.com

You may not have noticed, but it already has. Back in January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection updated its policy allowing for “reasonable suspicion” to lead to the carrying out of “advanced” searches on electronic devices.

Failure to comply will not lead to a fine, but could result in your device being taken or detained and you being delayed in your travel or denied entry to the country, provided you are not a United States citizen.

Similar to what was just enacted in New Zealand, it gave agents the chance to see what was actually stored on a device, not on the cloud. Files, photos and phone numbers are fair game, but if it’s not on the device, it’s not part of the search.

A basic search would give agents a quick look at what’s on your device, with no ability to connect it to another application or copy the information that is found. If the agents determine there to be reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is involved, they have the ability to, without a supervisor’s authorization, copy the information or connect to an external device to help analyze it.

The agency said it searched more than 30,000 devices in the 2017 fiscal year, but that the inspections only affected just 0.007 percent of the nearly 400 million travelers who came to the country from abroad in a 12-month period that ended in September.

Just as is the case with New Zealand, the U.S. argued that this is necessary in order to maintain high-level security in an increasingly digital age.

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